The cast and crew of Village Repertory Co. at the Woolfe Street Playhouse shuffled about the stage carrying chairs and stools, gathering around the central desk, contemplating the bookcases at the back and the horizontal space within which they must bring to life a period comedy about relations in a London-based solicitor’s office.
They were practicing set changes for the upcoming production of “London Wall,” a 1931 play by John van Druten. Director Keely Enright explained how the stage would transform quickly from one office configuration into another thanks to rotating panels and walls.
“Part of the joy and the fun is creating what a modern office of a legal firm looked like in 1931,” Enright said during an earlier interview. She had to study up on how legal documents were bound with thread, what those documents looked like, how copies were made, how telephone calls were managed at a switchboard. “There is so much paper to deal with!”
Village Repertory Co. is not the only local theater group mounting a smart 20th-century ensemble play set in an office. Pure Theatre, which occupies a large storefront on Upper King Street, is presenting David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a piece about corrupt real estate agents vying for the win.
It’s Mamet, which means its form is carefully sculpted, its language gritty, its pacing quick, its cast interdependent, its plot intense. “Glengarry Glen Ross” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984, among other prizes. The play is a profile of greed and an indictment of the business tactics that enable it.
Both productions, offered by two small downtown companies known to take on a challenge by delving into serious theater repertoire, are acclaimed examples (each in their own way) of the sort of ensemble pieces that actors and directors love.
There’s a lot of nuance, said Becca Anderson, who plays Miss Janus in “London Wall.” All sorts of small differences and adjustments can occur from one performance to the next, causing subtle changes in the way the actors interact or speak their lines. “You really just have to be present.”
Erin Wilson, who is directing the show for Pure, said its ensemble nature “is the No. 1 reason why we’re doing it.” It offers a chance to put seven of Pure’s eight core male ensemble members together in one production. (The eighth is in What If? Production’s “Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story.”)
“It’s almost the perfect combination of actor and play,” Wilson said. “It’s very testosterony. Rehearsals are very testosterony, too.” Wilson, who is married to one of the core ensemble members, Laurens Wilson, grew up immersed in theater. Her parents, Jim and Kay Thigpen, founded the highly respected Trustus Theatre in Columbia 30 years ago.
In pursuing her theatrical interests, Wilson has taken the stage in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Columbia and other cities. She and her husband relocated to Charleston about five years ago.
Wilson said working with an experienced group of actors who know each other well means that putting a play together can be an organic experience.
“The actors have been doing it so long, their instincts take over,” she said.
Directing them, therefore, is relatively painless. It’s like conducting an orchestra of talented players who know what they’re doing, who have learned the music and who already have a sense of how to perform it.
“I find this group of actors not only talented but on par with anything I’ve seen in any of the cities I’ve lived in,” she said.
So Wilson spends rehearsals molding and shaping, suggesting ways to emphasize this or that, to keep up the momentum, to communicate not just with words but with expressions, looks, posture. And she makes sure that those on stage and the crew off stage “speak the same language,” she said.
As for the play itself, “Mamet is in charge,” Wilson conceded. The text includes lots of indications; it’s a detailed blueprint that, if followed closely, results in that uniquely intense, wordy, clever, hard-edged theatrical rush characteristic of the playwright.
David Mandel, who plays Richard Roma in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” said observing the reactions of his colleagues on stage is critical in the process of character formation.
The male ensemble members know each other very well and therefore can communicate in shorthand or code, he said. “It showcases our strengths.”
Actor Mark Landis said the characters might be distasteful, but the play is easy to like. It presents a milieu in which the salesmen are so engrained, they are able to finish each other’s sentences.
They are intensely committed to this shallow, narrow world of real estate deal-making, and operate on two levels depending on whether they are interacting with customers or with one another, he said. This makes the 1984 play still very current. Who can’t relate to the pressure of competition?
“At the same time, there’s a sense that these men don’t exist anymore,” added actor Michael Smallwood. They were certainly the sole breadwinners for their families, they worked strictly on commission, they were part of a generation that had to cope with a survival-of-the-fittest work mentality. “The way livings are made (today) is different,” Smallwood said.
At the Woolfe Street Playhouse, Keely Enright was praising playwright John van Druten, who was born the same year, 1901, that the Victorian Era came to its end with the death of the queen that January. Precisely three decades later, van Druten’s “London Wall” was staged at the Duke of York’s Theater on London’s West End.
The play, a romantic comedy about lust and courtship in a solicitor’s office, is a clever, fast-paced ensemble piece that never condescends, Enright said.
It is the product of the post-Victorian modern era, but clearly informed by 19th-century European realism, whose early practitioners include Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and others.
“Not all plays age well,” but this one percolates with wit and social consciousness, she said. It treats its female characters with a surprising degree of sympathy. “Women characters are beautifully rendered,” and their plight in the workplace presented with nuance and concern.
Of course, there weren’t many women in the workplace back in those days, and the few who were tended to be relegated to secretarial or telephone duties. And what today we call sexual harassment was, in the 1930s, a nuisance for which women had little recourse.
Anderson said the way she prepares for the play is quite different from the way she gets ready for, say, a musical. With a musical, she starts with the songs, then adds on from there — character, dialogue, etc.
With a serious ensemble piece, she starts with the text, she said.
“I get an idea of the character often from the lines of the other characters, then the rest happens in rehearsal.” Some roles can be mastered alone at home, but roles that are part of an ensemble piece demand interaction.
Enright said the play includes distinct presentations of class as well as gender, reflected by speaking accents and workplace attitudes. Mr. Walker speaks the Queen’s English; the office boy speaks with a thick Cockney inflection.
“The challenge is to find the tone, the playwright’s voice,” Enright said. And to get the audience to feel as though they are present in the moment, despite the 1931 setting. “It’s a romantic comedy with lots of shards of glass in it.” It’s grounded in real problems that patrons will recognize as timeless.
For Village Repertory Co., “London Wall” is an invitation to return to the kind of stripped-down theater that depends exclusively on the quality of the play and the skills of the actors. There is no spectacle to distract audiences.
For a company that presents a variety of styles and genres, from musicals to Shakespeare, van Druten’s little-known play provides an opportunity for the company to revel in the craft.
“It’s a challenge for me as producing director here,” Enright said. “We don’t have one particular niche that we do.” So she must work on maintaining a standard across productions.
The ensemble comedy “London Wall” is just the sort of play that could raise that standard.
“This is the sort of thing that feeds my soul,” Enright said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ aparkerwriter.